JERUSALEM — Israeli children went back to school this week only to hear a chilling fact.
Three boys, ages 12 and 13, had been arrested in connection with a firebomb attack in the West Bank that nearly burned to death six members of an Arab family riding in a taxi on their way to the supermarket, Israeli police said Monday.
The three detainees are residents of the West Bank settlement of Bat Ayin, which is close to where the bombing took place.
The Ghayada family had been on their way to a supermarket frequented by Jewish settlers and Palestinians when their cab burst into flames on the evening of Aug.16. All six remain hospitalized in Jerusalem, with two in serious and guarded condition.
In an interview with Israeli TV Channel 1, the father of one of the firebombing suspects, whose names will not be released due to their ages, denied any possible connection between his son and the assault.
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"I know my son. He was in the town when this happened, and if he'd been involved I'd know. I'd see something," the father said.
"He was not educated to hate Arabs," the father added, saying his son lived "reality" in the community, including the murder of two Bat Ayin residents by Arabs. In 2009, a 13-year-old boy was killed by an ax-wielding Palestinian.
Police say they have physical proof linking the boys to the attack, which some Israeli media claim is fingerprint evidence.
If the kids are proven guilty, the case is one of the latest in an apparent spate of violent attacks committed by West Bank settlers. The violence has fanned Israeli fears about an increasingly lawless and aggressive society in the disputed territories, and about the possibility of such lawlessness seeping into Israel proper.
Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Ya'alon defined the Bat Ayin attack as a "terrorist act." Possibly coincidentally, the US State Department for the first time referred to violence perpetrated by Israeli settlers against Palestinians as "terrorist incidents" in its annual Country Report on Terrorism. Washington issued that report two days after the firebombing.
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Hours after that West Bank killing, in an unrelated event in downtown Jerusalem, a mob of Jewish youths screaming "Death to Arabs" chased down and mauled a young Arab man. They beat up Jamal Julani, 17, of East Jerusalem, leaving him near death. He was saved by a medical student on the scene, who performed cardiac massage.
On Tuesday, police said they had indicted eight minors, one of them a girl, in connection with that Zion Square assault. The youths are in detention facing charges of violent assault and incitement to racism.
These violent episodes prompted Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar to order schools across the country to devote part of the first day back from summer break to discuss youth violence against Arabs.
Gad Yair, a sociology professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said there is not necessarily a causal link between the two events, which both took place on Aug. 16, but society seems to be facing a crisis of authority.
“Israeli society does not see itself as a violent society. Since these acts themselves seem so arbitrary and so extreme, people still think we are talking about some bad weeds, but they still don't see that this has become an accepted norm,” Yair told GlobalPost.
Yet the repeated incidents have made evident that there is a new “legitimacy for violence,” he said.
“The authorities are not coping well. They don't react."
The fact that it took Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu five days to issue a statement condemning the two acts is seen as "a measure of hesitancy” that legitimates violence from on high, Yair said. These are not random instances, Yair added, but "a widely ranging cultural climate."
On Monday, hours after the police had announced the three boys’ arrest, a man in his pasture with his young daughter was assaulted and slashed on the face and neck by three masked men wielding razors. The man, named Ismail el Adara, from the village of Bir el Eid, had apparently been kicked so badly he'd fractured his skull.
Israel Police spokesman Mikey Rosenfeld confirmed that the incident had taken place, and said, "the army is dealing with this.”
“A complaint was made to the army and the complaint was handed over to the police and an investigation has been opened regarding the incident," he said.
Rosenfeld's statement highlights one of the challenges in dealing with settler violence: Which authority is in charge of what? Israeli citizens residing in the occupied territories are covered by Israeli law, but Palestinian residents are subject to Israeli military rule.
A recent study by Yesh Din, a human rights organization working in the territories, shows that of the 781 investigations opened by West Bank police following up complaints by Palestinian citizens, only 9 percent resulted in indictments.
Worse, human rights groups claim that soldiers often "support and collaborate with" — or at least do not confront — violent settlers.
One group, Ta'ayush, recorded a video (below) in which Israeli soldiers appear to stay on the sidelines as settlers throw rocks at Israeli activists and a Palestinian sheepherder last month.
"I say this very reluctantly, but I have the feeling more and more that we are talking about two nations: Israel and the territories,” Yair, the sociologist, said. “You have the sense that there is a different set of laws for them, and for us. It is very hard to say these things, but more and more, they seem true. We have two countries and in theirs, they have a militia that is sliding towards violence towards Palestinians."
More arrests are expected in connection with the attack near Bat Ayn. At least two members of the Ghayada family recall seeing a religious Jew, age "at least 27 or so," in their environs when the car was firebombed. A brother-in-law of one of the victims told Israel Radio "this was not done by kids. There were other people there."
Vardi, the professor and activist, claimed "children are definitely involved in these events, but so are adults. The technique of using of minors has been used by settlers for years. Among other things, it is very hard to bring them to justice. The settlers have no compunction about using kids, about pillaging, about lying, about violence," he said. "And they go to great lengths to avoid justice."
Many settler leaders, among them most vocally Chairman of the Council of Judea and Samaria Danny Dayan, have decried the attacks on humanitarian grounds as well as for besmirching the "law-abiding character" of the majority of West Bank settlers.
But the minority is increasingly visible.